Palo Duro Canyon

By Kaila Lancaster

Texas-themed fun for the family

Texas is home to a natural treasure that has inspired tourists, artists and adventurers for years. Riddled with natural beauty and storied with history, Palo Duro Canyon is carved into the flat golden plains of the Texas Panhandle, just about 20 miles south of the bustling cattle town of Amarillo.

Its claim to fame is being the second largest canyon in the United States, spanning 120 miles across the vast expanse of the West Texas plains. You could probably guess the largest canyon, but we won’t go there. The star of this show is Texas’ very own “grand canyon”— its desolate grandeur is as unique as it is breathtaking, and the surrounding towns offer good ol’ fashioned family fun.

Palo Duro Canyon captures the imagination of all who behold it. The scenery — red dirt, rocky formations, and mesquite and juniper trees — transports onlookers to a time laden with cowboys and settlers, campfires and cattle drives. It might look untouched and wonderfully wild, but tourists and adventurers are welcome to enjoy Palo Duro Canyon and all it has to offer.

The Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened July 4, 1934, offering a variety of ways for visitors to explore the canyon. The park is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. The admission fee is $5 per person, and children ages 12 and under are free.

Upon entering the canyon, stop by the visitor center, located on the canyon rim, to learn more about the state park. A souvenir store is housed in the same building, offering an array of books, pottery, jewelry and more.

The Trading Post on the canyon floor is the perfect stop to satisfy your adventurer’s appetite before exploring. The Post offers Texas-sized burgers and ice cream. If you plan on camping or lodging in one of the canyon’s rustic cabins, you can find groceries, ice, firewood and fuel at the post. There’s also more souvenirs like Palo Duro Canyon T-shirts, magnets and mugs.

You can explore the canyon by foot, mountain bike, horse or even car. The park has more than 30 miles of trails — hiking, biking and equestrian. As the famous explorer in Disney’s “Up” says, “Adventure is out there!” You’ll find plenty of adventure in Palo Duro Canyon. Don’t forget to pack your camera!

Feeling extra adventurous? The state park also offers overnight facilities for backpacking, camping and rustic cabin dwelling, with some sites equipped with water and electricity. The park has three cabins on the canyon’s rim, and four limited service cabins on the canyon floor. Call ahead to reserve a cabin and to guarantee the full Palo Duro Canyon experience.

If you’re taking the trip to Palo Duro Canyon and the Amarillo area, I suggest you travel during the summer — June through August. Yes, it’s hotter than blue blazes outside, but it’s also when performances of the famous “Texas” outdoor musical are running. This is a Palo Duro Canyon must-do, no doubt. The show is celebrating its 52nd season and is one of four official state plays.

The shows are performed at the historic Pioneer Amphitheatre, a picturesque theater carved out of one of Palo Duro Canyon’s natural basins. The show’s fictional characters illustrate the struggles and triumphs of settlers of the Texas Panhandle in the 1800s.

“Texas” is a musical chock-full of spirited song and dance numbers. The finale even features fireworks, weather permitting. If you’re Texan, you’ll walk away feeling a whole lot of Texas-size pride. If you’re not a native Texan, we give you permission to feel a whole lot of Texas-size pride too.

Did I mention there’s opportunity to arrive early and enjoy a delicious chuck wagon dinner provided by Feldman’s Wrong Way Diner, a local favorite? Three meats, trimmings, dessert and drinks are included.

Be sure to go online and book the show and the dinner prior to your arrival; prices are reasonable and sweet extras could be purchased — we’re talking souvenir programs, backstage tours and special events. Visit texas-show.com for more details and to purchase tickets.

While you’re exploring Palo Duro Canyon, be sure to peruse the town of Canyon, a worthy little sibling to its bigger brother, Amarillo. Canyon, Texas, is home to West Texas A&M University. It’s a small university with a pretty campus and a huge small town backing. A stroll through the campus makes for some scenic photo opportunities — a pretty fountain, statues of buffalo, shaded walkways.

Canyon alone has an idyllic small town feel. Explore the quaint town square and Main Street with its local shops and eateries — I once sampled a key lime pie milkshake from Rockin’ Zebra Soda Shoppe, and I still get cravings for the thick, creamy concoction. The courthouse is gorgeous and the proud center of this small town: sturdy and square, adorned with classic red brick and topped with a stately tower.

Let’s just say that Canyon is worth the trip for a couple of hours of “piddlin’,” as my grandma would say.

Just 18.6 miles north of Canyon lays Amarillo. (Go ahead, sing a few notes of George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning.”)

Amarillo is such a “Texan-y” destination with plenty for families to do together. Do you have a little one obsessed with horses? Are you a horse lover? Make a stop at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. The museum’s website says it best: “[It’s] a great place to bring Panhandle visitors where they can experience a piece of the West; it’s a place for horse lovers of all ages to learn more about the breed; and it’s a quiet sanctuary in which to appreciate some outstanding artwork.”

My personal favorite stop in Amarillo? Cadillac Ranch.

Cadillac Ranch is located right off the south side of I-40 (formerly Route 66) and was established in 1974 by a self-proclaimed group of “art hippies” from San Francisco. The Cadillacs are buried nose-down in the dirt at an obtuse angle, lined up in a neat row. Visitors are encouraged to bring a can of spray paint and deface the once-pristine vehicles with unique designs or the classic “[Name] loves [Name]” inscription.

Yes, you are encouraged to vandalize. I guess it’s not vandalism because it is a “thing.” A very fun thing. There’s even a sign that says, “Graffiti painting of anything on this side of fence is legal action.”

Don’t be afraid to bring along a can of spray paint and a camera and work your magic. My family is known to spend a good half-hour skipping from car to car, clumsily spraying cliché designs and our names and the year on hubcaps and hoods. It’s so much fun. Don’t forget to snap a pic of your creations — in just a few moments’ time, they will most likely be gone forever.

You’ll just have to go back, of course.

After all of that exploring and legal vandalizing, you’re bound to be hungry. I have just the place for you.

The Big Texan Steak Ranch is famous for its 72-ounce steak challenge. Yes. Seventy. Two. Ounces. The Big Texan’s website claims, “Many have tried. Many have failed.” I’ve seen quite a few failures of this challenge; my college volleyball team frequented this restaurant when we played the WTAMU Lady Buffs. Even though there are plenty of failed attempts, an attempt itself is a sight to behold.

The rest of the menu has classic Texan favorites — chicken fried steak, chicken fried chicken and savory sides — as well as a few Tex-Mex items. I am a quesadilla fan, myself. Open for breakfast through dinner, this is a can’t-miss stop in Amarillo. You can even lodge at the Big Texan, a themed motel with a Texas-shaped pool that’s just a stone’s throw away from the restaurant.

Can I get a “Yee-haw”?

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